Tell me something I don’t know: Why some Brexit leaks matter more than others

It is not the absence of a strategy that is most troubling, but the fact that the government appears to be going into the negotiations with aims that are intellectually incoherent, even delusional.

To qualify as a leak, the information revealed must be confidential. Most would also expect it to be reasonably surprising. With these criteria in mind, one wonders what all the fuss was about this week, when a leaked memo by the consulting firm Deloitte revealed that Whitehall faces an estimated shortfall of between 10,000 and 30,000 civil servants to cope with Brexit – with one department estimating a 40% staff deficit – and that there is still no-government wide plan for Brexit, which may take an additional six months to develop in the face of ongoing cabinet divisions.

Quite apart from the fact that the report was not commissioned by the Cabinet Office and was not, therefore, a 'government leak', as some reported; one need not look far to find the same information elsewhere. The Institute for Government calls the government's approach 'chaotic and dysfunctional'. UK in a Changing Europe has warned for months that the UK civil service is under-equipped, not to mention intellectually under-resourced, for the task ahead. Westminster watchers are similarly well aware of the fact, 'revealed' in the Deloitte memo, that faced with the overwhelming scale of the challenge, a huge number of Brexit-related projects have been launched across Whitehall. The new Department for Exiting the EU alone is engaged in 51 sectoral studies on the potential impact of Brexit on different parts of the economy.

While the memo only confirmed what we already knew or suspected, its implications still warrant attention. First, it is worrying that the government, ever fearful of internal party divisions and angering the Brexit-voting public with delays, is sticking doggedly to the March timetable and pressing ahead without first ensuring that adequate resources are in place. Most worrying is what it seems to confirm about Theresa May's managerial style: her preference for quietly amassing information from which she will devise her own plan – not the promised return to 'traditional' cabinet government. In light of the sheer quantity of information now being gathered across Whitehall, this seems like a high risk strategy.

A prime minister that exhibits the self-confidence of David Cameron and the controlling instincts of Gordon Brown is unlikely to reassure many. But this is not the biggest cloud hanging over the government’s Brexit plans. Another leak emerged this week – one that has received far less attention than the Deloitte report, but was far more worrying.

On Monday, a confidential memo revealed that the Irish minister Mary Mitchell had compared Liam Fox to a husband 'who wants to divorce his wife but keep all the assets'. While the unflattering portrayal of Fox grabbed attention, the memo underscored a simple yet extremely important point: that it is not the absence of a strategy that is most troubling, but the fact that the government appears to be going into the negotiations with aims that are intellectually incoherent, even delusional.

This is the belief– embodied by the three Brexiteers – that, against every utterance and institutional self interest of the EU, the UK will be able to convince European member states to disaggregate the four fundamental freedoms underpinning the EU and retain almost complete access to the single market without accepting the freedom of movement, ECJ jurisdiction or paying into the EU budget.

Since the High Court ruling, Parliament appears to be stepping up its efforts to scrutinise the government over Brexit amidst mounting evidence of its disarray. Yet at Prime Minister's Questions yesterday, it was only Angus Robertson of the SNP who raised this fundamental point, citing Czech criticisms of Boris Johnson’s assumption that the EU would let the UK leave the customs union and still trade freely with it. Meanwhile, an emboldened Jeremy Corbyn, armed with the Deloitte memo, pressed the government on its resources and planning. It was a strong performance by many accounts. Yet Corbyn's attack was another missed opportunity to address the most obvious obstacle facing the government as March approaches; that is, the stark contradiction between the kind of deal the government assumes it can secure and the range of deals on offer from Europe: basically Norwegian style membership or a 'hard' Brexit that would put the UK on an equal footing with, for example, Canada.

If Europeans aren't bluffing, then MPs need to start pressing the government on what it will prioritise when forced to choose between migration controls and single market access, where it is willing to compromise and what it will be willing to pay to protect the interests of the UK as well as certain groups within it. If such realism cannot be brought to bear on the government in advance of negotiations, the price of Fox and Johnson's arrogance is liable to be far higher.  

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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